Interview with taxi driver-turned-playwright Ishy Din
What is Approaching Empty about? Approaching Empty is the story of two lifelong friends and a business deal… and we know those things rarely end well! It’s also about family, community, about the choices we make and how we feel about them with the passage of time.
How is it relatable to working-class communities in East London / Essex? The play is set in a cab-office in Middleborough, but quite easily could be a back street garage in Hornchurch with Harry and Jack, or Mary and June in a greasy spoon café in Barking. The two main protagonists worked in factories together, were made redundant together and then one of them used his redundancy to pay off his mortgage. The other used it to open a business. Now it is many years later and they are both painfully aware of their mortality and the legacy they are going to leave. I think that this is a story that has been played out in many communities up and down the country. Really, the fact that it is Mansha and Raf as opposed to Harry and Jack is because I know this world intimately. I think the play examines class and our aspirations, those that we set ourselves and those that are imposed upon us. This is what makes the play universal and hopefully relatable to all regardless of our geographical location.
How much of this play is inspired by your time as a taxi driver? The title Approaching Empty is a phrase that always stuck with me from days as a cabbie. When a driver is asked where they are, he may reply “I’m approaching empty”(soon to be empty and ready for another job). Even back then, I always thought this would make a great title for a play. Many of my cab driver friends that have come to see the show have been impressed by the authenticity of the setting and how it feels so real which is really pleasing. As a writer, you are always told “write what you know”. It felt natural for me to set a play in this location and bring to life these characters that we have all had dealings with but perhaps, don’t see what goes on when the drivers aren’t going from A to B.
Rina Fatania’s character Sameena brings some lighter moments to this drama. Can you tell us more about her character? Sameena is a character that I’ve always wanted to write. I see many women around me that are not just victims, but are strong, feisty and driven. Sameena is very much in this mould. She has made some bad choices but as the play unfolds we realise that it was circumstance that drove her to them. Now she wants to put that behind her and rebuild her life. In order for her to do that, she must assert herself. I also wanted to write a female character that doesn’t take any prisoners and is outwardly fearless – she certainly is that!
How did you get into playwriting? I got into playwriting purely by accident. I’d bought a computer for my young daughters and used to resent the fact that it sat there for a majority of the time, (the girls would come home from school and use it for a while and then get a bath and go to bed). I was working one night and heard an advert looking for short radio plays with a sporting theme. I got the idea that I’d use the computer to write a play and enter this competition. I was convinced that someone at the BBC would read my effort and think, “what a git!” but to my complete surprise, they called me and said that they loved my play and were going to produce it. This was a really important moment because the idea that a cab driver from Middlesbrough was allowed to write was alien to me. I then starting entering competitions and attending writing workshops, really working at getting the tools required to become a professional writer. It has taken me a long time but I eventually got there and now write for theatre, TV and film!
Why do you like working with Tamasha? Tamasha is an incredible company that has been producing diverse work for over 25 years. Amongst its many productions over the years are the play (and later film) East is East and my own play Snookered. It’s a company that looks for and nurtures talent that would otherwise slip through the cracks and invests heavily in developing stories that would otherwise go unheard. My own journey with Tamasha has been fantastic! From them producing my first full-length play, Snookered, to working together on numerous other projects, including Taxi Tales which was aired on the BBC last year and is available on YouTube. I look forward to working again with them in the near future.
What other TV / Theatre projects have you worked on? It has been an incredibly busy and fulfilling time for me since turning professional. I’ve had the pleasure of helping develop and writing on the Channel 4 series Ackley Bridge. I’m working on a really fantastic project with Bend it like Beckham director Gurinder Chadda on a film screenplay. I’m also developing a play with the Royal Shakespeare Company that is really exciting but is still in the early stages. Of course, there is another play to write for Tamasha! This will be the third in a trilogy of which Approaching Empty is the second.
Why should people come and see Approaching Empty? People should come along to see Approaching Empty because it’s a thoroughly entertaining evening at the theatre. It tells a story that is instantly relatable with a great cast.